You Cannot Overedit


You cannot overedit, whatever anyone says. I dare say I’ve never read a book without finding a mistake, but when I see one in my own work, there’s nothing that can make me feel good about it.

I cannot submit my work to an editor without reading it aloud. In fact, before any novel manuscript goes to the publisher, it has been read aloud at least three times. Then, when the manuscript is returned from the publisher for some level of review, I read it aloud again.

It doesn’t have to be tedious, we make it fun around my house: the task gives us a reason to eat, drink, and smoke a cigar on my back porch, which overlooks a lake. Sometimes when my husband is feeling like it’s time for a bourbon, he’ll swing by my study and ask, “Got anything to read?”

And still, a copyeditor will find things wrong with a submission — every single time. And recently, while I was reading my book, Echoes of Edisto, into the Talking Book Services at the South Carolina State Library, I found errors. Little things I should have caught, things a proofer, an editor, and a copyeditor should have caught. Those tiny mistakes slid past so many eyes, and it frustrates the crap out of me.

Why do these things happen? Because editing is human, pure and simple. No computer program can completely edit a manuscript.

Thanks to the technology of today, any author or publisher can go back and upload a corrected copy of a manuscript, but you cannot undo the first impression of a mistake to a reader. I dare say I’ve never read a book without finding a mistake, but when I see them in my work, there’s nothing I can do to make me feel good about it.

So, when you are editing, read your work aloud, the more times the better (within reason). Have someone read it to you. Let other eyes read it. You can even use an app or program that reads aloud to you while you follow along. Try ReadAloud or NaturalReader or go to this post on, where they’ve rated 10 programs for you.

You cannot overedit, regardless what anybody says. Put the manuscript away and read it after time has lapsed — weeks or a couple of months — when your brain no longer remembers how you wrote it. At the same time, send it to your beta readers, the group of folks you trust to read it and dissect it properly.

You want your work to be error-free and pristine, but the occasional mistake will arise. Most editors will forgive one mistake in a short piece — maybe two — and a publisher will forgive one error for every 10,000 words. But when a submitted piece has an error every 500 words … chances are you won’t hear from them again.

There are a million ways to edit your work. Embrace them all.


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  1. Thank you Mrs. Clark for taking time to provide your insight and advice. My wife is a stickler for reading my work aloud. I have found it to be a revealing, useful tool.

  2. perfection is not possible
    at some point you are not making it better just different
    at that point you are wasting time with more editing

  3. You’re right. Most publishing companies employ idiots as copy-editors and proofreaders, probably b/c no one wants to do that kind of work and most people consider it beneath them.

    This sentence “It doesn’t have to be tedious, we make it fun around my house” is a comma-splice error.

  4. Sigh. I’ve been editing a book of poetry for the past 8 months and I’m sick to death of looking at it. 138 stinking pages. It feels like idiocy. Thanks for the article.

  5. I agree completely, but (that’s a loud, resounding ‘but’), I can’t wait until it’s perfect. And, editing can be costly and time-consuming. We do kinda the same thing, the whole family gets involved, and a couple of good friends, and do pretty well. But, I just noticed, just browsing the Kindle edition of one of my books that’s been in print for five years, I have five paragraphs in a row that start with “He,” two on the bottom of a page and three on the top of the next page. I’ll bet a half dozen, competent, readers spent 40 hours or more on the manuscript, and all of us missed that. It’s maddening. At this point, I can only hope that the readers forgive me, and don’t let the He’s, or anything else I missed, take away from the story. I’ve just retired from my day job, and hope to live out my days writing and reading.

  6. 1. I edit, many first-time writers. I get a couple of statements after my first reading and providing my red-marked manuscript on which I would like you to respond.

    What do you say when they say things like::
    “I say it as I think it.” or “They are the words I get from God.” or “I wouldn’t say it like that.”
    My response:
    First, writing is not thinking or talking. You don’t interrupt yourself to edit those words–you just think or say them. However, writing gives you the time to change those words to a better word, the correct grammar, better sentence to get your point across, etc.
    Second, as a writer, you are held to a higher standard for a book than writing a letter to a friend. You are asking people to take time to read it, pay dollars. That’s why an editor is so important.
    Third, that is why you were given quotation marks. If fiction, make one of your characters say words you would use (or God would use). Or, write in the first person, but this gives you only some leeway.

    2. At what point can, or does, my editing dismiss a person’s voice? I try not to move a comma if there is an alternate correct place if it would change the person’s emphasis. I try not to add words or change the location of words unless they are necessary to make the sentence more understandable. I try not to eliminate words unless they are overused, said earlier or the person is plain long-winded and shorter sentences will do fine. I recently finished a first editing of a book that flowed really well in the beginning when the author was talking about steps in her life. When she got to concepts, like communication, truth, etc., I was saying “Put these three paragraphs after P. 4 line 22,” “What you have on Pages 21-25 is the same as on Pages 42-47, just reworked.” “You need to connect how these concepts relate to Chapters 1-7.” Am I “rewriting” or “changing the author’s voice?”

    • Both. You are helping that writer improve. If you, as an editor, find the writing annoying or irritating or just wrong, then you are hired to say so. It’s up to the writer to dictate what they do and don’t want to use.

  7. You most certainly can over-edit. My college prof told me about this woman who won a short-story contest that included publication. She wanted to edit it a bit before publishing. She ended up taking out everything that made it cute and won the contest for her. (i.e. her “improved” story wouldn’t have even placed in the contest, much less won) In all art, there is such a thing as overworking it to death, WRITING INCLUDED.

    • But these days, it is RARE. Too many people use over-editing as an excuse not to edit enough. In your example, she had already been validated and the piece was good. Why was she editing at all?

  8. Thank you for being a kindred spirit! I’m a “normal” person but when I have something to write some strange OCD takes over and I hardly recognize myself. I’m glad I’m in such good company!

  9. Reading aloud is a great way to catch errors. I find reading in a different format helps as well (i.e., switching from reading a Word document onscreen to reading a PDF). I found a small error above (10,00 instead of 1,000: or is it 10,000?). It makes for a great illustration of the very point you’re making. One error in a short piece? No biggie. But still frustrating!

  10. I enjoyed your post and generally feel the same way. While I write and edit fiction occasionally, most of my work involves editing factual journal manuscripts for the biomedical sciences arena. Most of my clients are non-native English speakers and since I’m a perfectionist, there is always something I wish I could change after I return it to the client–even though I check it several times before I send it.

    In my defense, I generally have extremely tight deadlines (from one or two days up to a week max) and there just isn’t always the time to make sure that every single error is accounted for (though I try damn hard). ;-)

    In saying that, when I read fiction (and I read a lot of fiction, maybe 2–3 books a week), much of it has been self-published and badly edited or not edited at all, which is a common problem among many self-published writers posting on Amazon (and the mistakes are often widespread, obvious, and really annoying), and I start to wonder if the writer even bothered to have their work proofread and/or edited./upgraded. If the language is really awful, I quickly lose interest and always think that it’s a shame that many writers (especially writers with new or exciting ideas) don’t consider getting help with developmental or line editing and many writers are almost allergic to proofreading.

    • Indie authors need to edit the hardest, because the onus is on them. That and they are saddled with the stigma of being indie published, so they need to try harder to overcome the novice moniker.

  11. Your suggestion about reading the manuscript aloud is such a great idea. I’ve done that with film scripts when my son (business partner/coproducer) I reviewed scripts but I’ve not done it with book manuscripts. Finding errors of any sort make me crazy, especially if I’ve submitted to a contest. I no longer bother with contests but I am finally putting some of my novels into ebooks format, eventually into print, and don’t ever want to find another mistake in the books such as I found in my previously printed novels. I have done second editions of those simply to clean up mistakes that should never have been missed. I’m going to enlist a reading buddy and begin doing this immediately. Thanks!

  12. And the comment I just offered above proves that I should not attempt to write (or edit) at the end of a long day. By the time you’ve read this, I’m sure you already spotted the error!

  13. This is the truth about errors. They are like little gnats that crawl into your typing when the writer is asleep. They say it happens because our eyes play tricks on us when our brain wants to see the correct way the letters, words, phrases, sentences should be … yes, the brain overrides the eyes. We all do it … we miss our mistakes. Even editors paid to find those hiding errors will do it … they’ll let the error slide by and tell you it is PERFECT.


  14. This is such a true statement. I have been doing reviews on several books and without fail, there is a typo following a turning. Even with my own titles I have found these little squirmy things that detract from the overall tale. Also, once I used a converter software (not telling!) that I loved almost as much as a man, and it had changed so many little things in my book that it was shocking! I had uploaded the book to Kindle in a rush followed by internet glitch, and let it go, forgetting to preview…!
    What a dreadful afterward this caused from some mean and vicious person who read it for free… (Another mighty issue with our beloved books).
    It is a wise idea to get a really good copy editor to scan each page (time consuming and costly), but it is worth it in the end. However, sometimes it is so difficult for an author to loose the apron strings on their new ‘baby’ that it is best to let it go and edit later. With a perfectionist there will always be changes or better way to say something and it can take years to get the baby into the world for viewing! With POD we can resubmit our titles over and over as stupid typos and formatting glitches occur! Phew! However, collateral damage occurs with this method as fans fade and hopes of it being a ‘bestseller’ die.

      • Yikes! That’s a tough one, when copy editor makes a mistake. I’m almost to the point of sending my first novel to a Book Baby editor. It’s been professionally edited twice, for content.

  15. Great article. The best editing and rewriting comes from letting a manuscript sit for months. E.B. White famously reported that after he wrote the first draft of CHARLOTTE’S WEB he let the manuscript sit for about three months. When he reread it at that time he realized the story started too late — on the fourth chapter! So he deleted the first three chapters, which resulted in the classic story we have today that millions revere. This same thing happened to me for my animal fantasy novella. I had to write three chapters of introduction, to learn about the characters, thus wandering, until I realized, months later, that the story really started on chapter four, at the point of rising action needed to drive the central theme from page one. Additionally, when I send a previously published story to a reprint market, I will go over the story again and find changes that need to be made for clarifications, or to modernize a story to fit present day, or correct bad wording that somehow made it to publication. I’ll do the same for unpublished stories that have been rejected. I return to them years later, find errors, inconsistencies, or scenes that need alteration to read better, or scenes that need to be added to better drive the story. Edgar Allan Poe was also a constant rewriter, and various versions of particular poems have been published. Lastly, Ernest Hemingway went over each of his stories dozens and dozens of times, agonizing over every single word. He would only send his stories to editors when he felt they were just right. It’s also VERY important to print your work out on paper, and proof on hard copy. Proofing properly on an electronic screen is NOT possible.

    • If only we could be so patient to let stories ferment. Self-pubbers can’t wait to get the book out, and traditional publishers are overly eager as well. I have contracts for my books, but still, there’s a push to meet a deadline.

  16. Agree, agree, agree! This is something my mother taught me 50 years ago, while we prepared my high-school term papers. I read the manuscript for my 2013 debut novel out loud three times before publication. Since it came out, I have found 7 errors – 6 of them are typos – in 131,000 words. None of the errors alter the context. I think I can call that a significant degree of success.

    It occurred to me a few weeks ago, while discussing this topic on an online revision course, that for those writers who may not have a second set of ears handy to read out loud or to listen to a read-out-loud manuscript, an option might be to approach a local retirement community, through its cultural programming director. Not that this would necessarily be a group program, but the director might inform the residents that a local author is looking for a volunteer interested in working one-on-one with the author either to read a manuscript out loud to the author or to listen to the author read it. Lots of senior citizens have excellent reading skills, educations, and life experience to bring to such a project, and are avid readers. I think a lot of them would be thrilled to be part of such a project. And give them credit on your acknowledgements page.

  17. I didn’t catch your name as the author of this piece, but the minute I read lake and cigar, I immediately scrolled up and there it was!

    I agree. Reading a manuscript aloud makes a big difference. I enjoy sharing that “fun” job with a few writing friends. Reading aloud highlights not only typos, punctuation errors, etc., but it makes errors in the tone and rhythm of the narrative and dialogue jump off the page.

    Good piece.

  18. Complete agreement with this approach. It helped catch some huge and small mistakes in my work. When I do it with someone else, I get to observe how it will potentially sound like to my reader. Increased value comes if you can do the exercise with someone in your target audience. Thanks for sharing this.


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